International: Don't blame AIDS on Muslims

Positive Muslims
It is hardly surprising that Muslims feel singled out for unfavorable categorization by the West. AIDS is a global threat which is ravaging Africa and threatens to do the same in populous Asia.
But a supposedly concerned U.S. think-tank has chosen to present the threat in religious terms.
The report of the National Bureau of Asian Research entitled "Behind the Veil of a Public Health Crisis; HIV/AIDS in the Muslim world" proclaims that this is a "heretofore largely unexplored problem" and demands that "countries in the Muslim world tackle these problems now." It sees the Muslim world as one and describes the spread of HIV among Muslims as "the newest phase in the global pandemic."

Ironically, this attempt to link Islam and AIDS denial has coincided with a UNAIDS meeting in Kobe, Japan, focusing on the situation and outlook in Asia, which clearly shows how the issue cuts across all religious and political divides.

The statements by the National Bureau of Asian Research may be partly true for much of the Arab world, but are clearly dubious in respect of most of Islamic Africa and nonsense when applied to Asia, where most Muslims live. Sub-Saharan Africa's AIDS problem is hardly news. There is little to suggest that the region's Muslims have, as a group, been responding differently from its Christians either in terms of infection rates or denial.

Indeed, when it comes to denial, largely Christian South Africa was far behind countries such as Guinea and Tanzania, with predominant or significant Muslim populations.

As for Asia's largest predominantly Muslim country, Indonesia, it was slow to wake up to its problem, but more because of government inertia than because of unwillingness to talk about sexual issues, a subject on which few Indonesians are coy.

Indonesia has made some big strides in recognizing the problems and taking action - for example in providing free needles for intravenous drug users, who account for 40 percent of those infected.

Official denial was always far more stubborn in democratic, secular India than in formerly authoritarian Indonesia, and many of the worst stories of severe social ostracism of HIV carriers also come from predominantly Hindu India. Mostly Muslim Bangladesh has a better record than India in addressing HIV, while Pakistan does not. Social and economic factors, not religion, seems the major influence on both incidence and reaction to HIV.

Nor does there seem to be any link between religion and refusal to use condoms. Thailand led the way in condom promotion and Cambodia has latterly been successful in dramatically reducing HIV incidence in the 15-40 age group through condoms.

But use in India lags far behind - as it also does in authoritarian China. Vietnam, like China, was another country to make a late start in recognizing the threat from drug users as well as unprotected commercial sex and has had only limited success so far in controlling the spread. As for Myanmar, it remains largely in denial of AIDS as of most other realities, despite having the highest infection rate in Southeast Asia, a situation clearly linked to the abundance of heroin.

A few Muslim clerical authorities have inveighed against providing condoms for extramarital sex and needles for drug users. But only in the Philippines has religion significantly impeded condom availability, and in that case it was Catholicism.

Malaysia has a more serious problem, but it seems to affect all races equally. Nor is awareness lacking - the outspoken daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has been in charge of the awareness campaign for some time.

Most Asian countries still have far to go in combating the disease if the dire predictions of UNAIDS are not to come about. Some 8.2 million people (out of a global total of 25 million) in the region are infected. The number is estimated to have risen by 1.2 million in 2004 and could become an African-level pandemic.

Governments almost everywhere in Asia have to put more into awareness, condom and clean-needle campaigns. Individuals have to do much to adjust their own behavior and societies to acknowledge that social ostracism can only impede prevention by reinforcing denial. But to suggest that Muslim countries and peoples present particular problems in tackling AIDS appears not merely untrue but will do a grave disservice to the campaign against its spread.

Article by Philip Bowring and originally published on 7 July 2005 in the International Herald Tribune.